We must teach our children about the mistakes of our past

The Truth and Reconciliation process on Indian residential schools marked a nationally significant point in its progress last week when  Commission chair the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair announced 94 recommendations to the government of Canada, the provinces and territories and the Canadian public. He and his fellow commissioners brought these forward to address the primary concerns of the Canadian aboriginal population.

That would be the Truth part.

The next part, and by far the most difficult, is the Reconciliation part, because that is what will happen if Canada and its provinces begin to act on some of the most significant of the Commission’s recommendations.

Reconciliation will be by far more difficult because it means changing attitudes, sometimes on a monumental scale.

Elsewhere in this paper, there is an interview with veteran educator Grace Fox of M’Chigeeng, herself a survivor of a decade at the St. Joseph School for Indian Girls located near the village of Spanish and close to the mouth of the Spanish River.

Ms. Fox was interviewed about the recommendation that asks for the inclusion of the true story of the Canadian government’s treatment of its aboriginal citizens during the first century after Confederation, including the residential school experience, as well as other important stories, such as First Nation people’s participation as loyal soldiers during the War of 1812 and both twentieth century world wars.

At the end of the interview, Ms. Fox quoted Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde who remarked last week that a good first step at reconciliation would be to move away from racist attitudes so that other, more positive thoughts can replace them.

In his remarks, Justice Sinclair did not shy away from using the term cultural genocide, for what else is it to be called when official government policy moves First Nation children away from their homes and families, far away in many cases, so that federally sponsored and largely church-run schools can systematically eradicate their languages and cultures?

Grand Chief Bellegarde’s observations about racism are valid ones because the governments of Canada, with the provinces and territories standing by and doing nothing to intervene, set the bar very high in favour of tolerating, even encouraging, racist attitudes when it established that First Nation languages and culture (and, by implication, First Nations citizens themselves) were more of a nuisance than anything else. And they did so for fully seven generations of Canada’s history in a program that actually predates Confederation.

That’s seven generations of First Nation Canadians encouraged to think they were of little consequence in the scheme of things in Canada and a parallel seven generations of Canadians, largely of European descent, being officially sanctioned by governments and churches to agree with aboriginal peoples’ steadily declining opinion of their own worth to the general society.

This is an enormous thing for our society to overcome, and Ms. Fox observed that even after a half-century in education and as a veteran trustee on the Rainbow District Board of Education, she still gets hints from some quarters, although not her colleagues, that her position is deemed to be second-rate because she represents the First Nation community and because she is appointed by them, rather than elected.

Manitoulin Island’s own history fits right into the Canadian government’s (and its predecessor’s) attitude to the aboriginal community.

Following the 1836 treaty, all of Manitoulin Island and surrounding islands were to be maintained for First Nation settlement.

Manitoulin’s first European community was established at Manitowaning around 1850. In an experiment underwritten by the government of Upper Canada and the Anglican Church, the community would function as a sort of trades school where First Nation people could learn the practical trades of the day such as barrel making, shoe and horse harness repair, blacksmithing, carpentry and more. It was called the Manitowaning Experiment, and it was not deemed successful. Equally unsuccessful was the attempt to lure other Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi people here from other areas, leaving their lands available for European settlement.

People understandably preferred to remain in the territories that their ancestors had lived in and hunted on for generations and so, by 1860, the government made a concerted, eventually successful, effort to locate the Island’s First Nation residents to reserves and then to survey the rest of Manitoulin Island for European settlement.

In fact, the first Indian Residential Schools for boys and girls from around this part of the Great Lakes were located at Wikwemikong, close to where the present Holy Cross Mission Church now stands.

Shortly after 1910, those schools were deemed inappropriate for the needs of government and by 1912, new schools, in a more remote and less accessible setting, had been established at the mouth of the Spanish River where they remained in service until 1958 (for boys) and 1962 (for girls).

Chief among the reasons for the relocation was the fact that the Wikwemikong schools were located in the midst of a growing community, and so the process of eradicating young people’s language and culture there was difficult, if not impossible.

A story that perseveres at Wikwemikong has it that because of a disagreement with the band council of the day over the relocation of the schools, they were dismantled and the rock from their construction was freighted by boat to Spanish to be used in the building of the new schools there. The Wikwemikong schools had been built by local craftsmen who quarried and cut the rock in the interests’ of theirs and others’ children’s education.

Another of Justice Sinclair’s and the TRC’s main recommendations deals with engaging First Nation people in Canada’s prosperity.

Here is another related story: the late Clayton Shawana of Wikwemikong once told this writer that his community’s once-thriving agricultural sector all but vanished in the 1930s as farm families relocated from South Bay, Kaboni, Buzwah, Rabbit Island and Murray Hill to the village of Wikwemikong where there was a so-called Indian Day School their children could attend.

If they lived more than five kilometres from the school, then the rule was that their children would have to go to residential school at Spanish; hence the exodus from the rural areas and a blow to self-reliance.

We know all about the horrors the German Nazis inflicted on the Jews of central Europe during the Second World War and the simultaneous Holocaust, and we know much about the Turkish Armenians’ fate at the hands of the Turks (although Turkey fiercely denies that whatever happened in 1915 was genocide).

We know these things, and we know that, for example, any Holocaust denier is either a Neo-Nazi or in some other way mentally unbalanced. In spite of the official position of the Turkish government, we also understand that something horrible happened to its Armenian population in 1915. It’s quite possible that, for an entire century, that country and its successive national governments, through two world wars, have been constant in their version of The Big Lie. (This is a construct that says if you state a falsehood often enough and with consistent enthusiasm, eventually people begin to believe it’s true.)

In our country, no government has ever practiced The Big Lie on the residential schools/cultural genocide issue. Mostly, they’ve just left it alone in spite of sporadic efforts by individuals or organizations to shed some light on what happened and, more importantly, the consequences of it all.

The announcement of Justice Sinclair’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations has had a week’s worth of high-level news coverage so far.

We cannot expect the federal government in power to encourage that the issue remains in full public view because then there would be the expectation of some action on some of the recommendations. Therefore, it will be the job of the opposition parties and ordinary citizens to keep the conversation going and to encourage action on some of the points raised. Every federal political party must be made to state how they will handle the recommendations if they are elected to form the national government this fall, and which of the 94 recommendations each party considers most important.

There is no doubt that a national thrust at including the true story of Canada’s relationship with its First Nation people in all of our public education systems, from Kindergarten to Grade 12, would be an enormous aid to accomplishing what Grand Chief Bellegarde seeks: getting rid of old, racist attitudes and replacing them with positive thoughts.

After this process, no non-First Nation Canadian should ever again say or think “get over it!” about the catastrophe inflicted on a group of Canadian citizens for this is the legacy for generations of people taken out of their communities in an effort to “de-Indianize” them.

A national education program is a recommendation that is doable (even if some of the provinces complain), will not be costly and whose benefits will be immeasurably positive in just the way Grand Chief Bellegarde hopes for.

The young people of this country are, of course, our hope and it is that cadre that must learn of this unfortunate chapter in Canada’s story so that, when they grasp the levers of power, they will know and understand the whole story.